Do you have tight hamstrings? Stand with your feet together. Keep your knees locked. Slowly bend forward and touch your toes. Can you reach them? No? Then your hamstrings are too tight and they need stretching.
Wait. I’m kidding, but that’s exactly what most people tend to think when they can’t touch their toes.
Just because your hamstrings are tight doesn’t mean they need to be stretched more. Tight hamstrings could be a symptom of something greater. A lot of people complain to me about tight hamstrings, and the usual exercises prescribed by physical therapists, strength coaches, and friends always include a variety of hamstring stretches. Yes, there are times when these stretches are necessary, but there are also many times when they simply aren’t.
Neurological Tightness vs Mechanical Tightness
Before we get into it; let’s first go over the difference between mechanical and neurological tightness:
Mechanical tightness occurs when a muscle is actually shortened, which is most often caused by poor posture, movement and sitting all day on your poor workstation chair.
Neurological tightness, on the other hand, occurs when the muscle is consistently lengthened.
What happens in the case of neurological tightness is that because the muscles are lengthened they receive additional neural input, thought to be a protective response. Essentially, the body is trying to prevent the muscle from being stretched too far, so you experience the sense that the muscle is tight.
The best way to think of neurological tightness is to grab a rubber band and stretch it. Stretch it as far as you can and the band itself becomes tight. This is exactly what happens to the muscles in our body. Now take that stretched rubber band and shoot it at someone who’s sitting like a jack-a** with poor posture 🙂
Moving on… the problem of tight hamstrings could be due to a number of different factors. While neurological failure is very common, mechanical problems can be identified quickly. If your hip flexors are tight, the pelvis tilts forward. Because our hamstrings are attached to the back of the pelvis, this tilting will cause the hamstrings to be maintained in a lengthened position and then whammo; tight hamstrings.
This means that instead of stretching, you should actually be working on strengthening (think standing squats and standing all day rather than sitting) so they can counteract the forward pelvic tilt position.
Another common problem with “tight hamstrings” is that you are simply not moving properly or your muscles are not firing properly. In this situation, muscles aren’t activating and firing at the appropriate time, causing your hamstring to do much of the work other muscles are supposed to do.
For example, when extending the hip, your glutes should fire first, followed by the secondary hamstrings. For many people, the glutes don’t fire properly (in some cases barely at all) and the hamstrings take over the main job of extending the hip. But the hamstrings weren’t designed to be the primary mover here, and they will therefore have to be contracted for longer – giving you the feeling of tightness.
How to Fix Neurological Tightness
First, is your spine properly aligned? If not, then you have neurological problems that are central (from the spinal cord) and no amount of mobility, flexibility or stability training is going to correct it.
Second, perform the active isolated hamstring stretch. While this exercise does stretch the hamstrings to some degree, it’s main goal is to train proper sequencing and muscle patterns of your butt.